Reflection: From prison comes joy

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
27th of September, 2020

Matthew 21:23-32
Philippians 2:1-13

Between last week’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, when Jesus told those around him the parable of merciful employer, and this week’s reading, in which there is another parable about a vineyard, Jesus and his followers entered Jerusalem surrounded by a large crowd spreading cloaks and branches on the road and shouting ‘Hosanna!’ After entering the city, Jesus immediately went to the Temple where he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those selling doves. Today’s reading comes from the next day. Understandably the religious leaders, those who would have felt themselves to be guardians of the Temple and of the faith, now question Jesus’ authority for what he has done.

This is the beginning of five controversies between Jesus and his opponents in Jerusalem. (Matthew loved writing things in groups of five, the number of the Pentateuch, the books of Moses.) The religious leaders are trying to get Jesus to blaspheme, to say that his authority comes from God. But Jesus, like all good rabbis, answers their question with another question. Where do they think John’s baptism came from? His questioners are immediately in a cleft stick; if they say ‘from heaven’ they will be asked why they did not believe in John. If they say ‘from humans’, the crowd will attack them. So, they cannot answer; so, Jesus does not answer them.

I have some sympathy for the chief priests and elders here. They are, after all, confronting someone who had caused a huge ruckus in the Temple, in the presence of a passionate crowd, in a land under Roman occupation. These leaders have kept the people of Israel ‘safe’ by collaborating with the Roman officials and Rome’s puppet king, Herod. They most certainly do not want a messianic pretender stirring up the crowd. That was what got John the Baptist executed. They want to maintain the status quo. It is interesting that in the parable he tells the chief priests and elders Jesus compares them to members of two other professions notorious for their collaboration with Rome, the tax-collectors who took money from Jews for their occupiers, and the prostitutes who would often have serviced Roman soldiers. One group of collaborators with Rome were notorious, and yet listened to John the Baptist and repented. The other group of collaborators with Rome were respectable, and so refused to repent. One of the things this parable does is remind Christians not to allow our own respectability to suppress our need to repent, or lead us to look down on and reject any notorious sinners of our day. We need to be humble about our own claims to righteousness.

This leads me to the reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, in which Paul reminds them to ‘in humility regard others as better than yourselves’. There are two things I want you to remember about this letter as we read passages from it today and over the next few weeks; Paul is writing it from prison and it is a letter full of joy. The lectionary has given us a gift in asking us to read this letter during this time of lockdown, when the church building is closed, and we are isolated from each other. We know that the history of Christianity is full of people being locked down, the Apostle Paul is just one of many, and so we have a wonderful heritage of Christians enduring isolation on which to draw during the covid19 pandemic.

Paul obviously loves the members of the church at Philippi. Unlike his letters to the church at Corinth or in Galatia, there is no scolding; no equivalent of ‘You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?’ (Galatians 3:1). Paul begins his letter by telling the Philippians that, ‘I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now’. (Philippians 1:3-5) Paul is writing to a community of Christians that he himself founded. (Luke tells the story of his visit to this Roman colony in Macedonia in Acts 16 and you might remember that it was there that Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth, was converted.) Paul is writing to a community that alone among the churches gave him financial support for his missionary journeys. (Philippians 4:15-16) He is writing to a community who even sent a representative, Epaphroditus, to serve Paul in his work. (Philippians 2:25-30) He is writing with joy.

But all the joy Paul expresses in this letter, and there is so much that it is from a passage in this letter that the third Sunday of Advent takes the name ‘Joy Sunday’ (Philippians 4:4-7), is being written to the Philippians from prison, possibly a prison in Rome, where Paul is being held on a capital charge. This is the main reason for the letter. Paul is not worried that the church at Philippi is going to fall apart. He is not condemning unchristian practices. He is writing to reassure the Philippians that even his imprisonment is working for Christ: ‘I want you to know, beloved that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel’. (Philippians 1:12) Paul himself does not know whether to hope for release or execution: ‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.’ (Philippians 1:21-24) So, they are not to worry about him; ‘only, live [their lives] in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ’. (Philippians 1:27)

This is where we come to today’s reading, a description of what a life worthy of the gospel looks like. It is a life lived in community, united with one another, without selfish ambition or conceit, in which each looks to the interests of the other. Today’s passage starts, ‘If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy …’ but the word Paul uses in the Greek is one that assumes the reality of what he is saying. It might be better to translate it: because there is encouragement in Christ, because there is consolation from love, because there is sharing in the Spirit, because there is compassion and sympathy, the Philippians will be able to make Paul’s joy complete by living with one mind and one heart. And this is where we come to the passage that commentators think was a pre-existing hymn, the description of Jesus’ emptying himself and then being exalted. Paul in his letters usually talks about Jesus’ crucifixion leading to his resurrection; this hymn talks about Jesus’ incarnation leading to his glorification. Some scholars, looking at the rhythm of the words, think Paul added in the phrase ‘even death on a cross’ which would be a very Pauline thing to do.

There are two possible translations of Paul’s introduction to this hymn. Paul could be saying to the Philippians, ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,’ or he could be saying ‘Let the same mind be in you that you have in Christ Jesus’. The first translation tells the Philippians to imitate Christ. The second tells them that they have no need to imitate Christ, they simply need to be who they are, those who are part of the community of Christ. I lean a little to the second, because today’s passage ends with Paul’s reassurance, ‘it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure’. We do not need to artificially seek to humble ourselves. We simply need to love one another, as Paul loves the members of the church at Philippi and so can rejoice, despite his own imprisonment.

Imagine how reassuring this hymn must have been for Paul in prison. We know from other letters that those he called ‘super-apostles’ (2 Corinthians 11:5) tried to use Paul’s sufferings against him, as a sign that God was not with him. (1 Corinthians 4:8-13) I told you last week how much I dislike the prosperity gospel, but it has always been with us and Paul faced it too. It would have been unsurprising if his imprisonment led him to question whether God was truly with him. Humility was not a virtue in the Roman world; it was an attribute of slaves and children and women. But humility, Christians knew, was also an attribute of the God who in Jesus Christ gave up power to show us love. And so Paul, imprisoned and facing death, humiliated according to the understanding of his culture, as Jesus was humiliated by dying on a cross, can still know encouragement in Christ, consolation from love, sharing in the Spirit, compassion and sympathy, and God at work within him.

Lockdown is hard! I hit the wall on Monday; I’d been living alone for a month, which I know is a much shorter time than any of you have been in Stage Four; two of my nieces had told me they were going to visit my mother, because they all live in regional Victoria; I am missing my mother after living with her for the past year; and I am really missing my nephews and nieces, who I haven’t seen for months. On Monday, after weeks of feeling, “we Melburnians are tough and strong; we can do this!” I instead felt like hiding under my doona and crying. I didn’t, I had some chocolate and read a murder mystery, but Monday was a bleuch day. And then the lectionary gave me the gift of this reading: the reminder of all the Christians throughout history who have experienced imprisonments much worse than this lockdown; and the reassurance that just as God had been with all of them, God is with us. Paul writes in gratitude and reassurance to the Philippians that he knows ‘you hold me in your heart’. (Philippians 1:7) They may be separated by distance and his imprisonment, but they are united in God’s grace. We are separated from each other and from those we love by the pandemic and the lockdown, but we too are united in God’s grace.

In the reading that the lectionary gives us in two weeks’ time, Paul offers the Philippians an instruction and an encouragement that bears frequent repetition, so I have decided not to wait until then to quote it. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say Rejoice’. (Philippians 4:4) If Paul can write than from prison, we can hear it in lockdown. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say Rejoice’. Amen.

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1 Response to Reflection: From prison comes joy

  1. myzania says:

    Lovely reflection. My slump day was this weekend. Just have to keep allowing feelings in while focusing on the overall good things, I suppose.

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